The Coronavirus Pandemic has pushed countries over the edge in forging new alliances and deserting older ones, and one of the most drastic changes emerging in the present global scenario is the sudden camaraderie between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
While China has been facing flak from all other countries, it is finding much-needed support with Russia and it is also reciprocating to the Kremlin’s benevolence.
Camaraderie at display
Moscow has been supportive of what can clearly be defined as Beijing’s dubious role in the COVID-19 outbreak, at several regional co-operation levels and multilateral platforms. During the informal videoconference of the BRICS foreign ministers, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the European Union’s claims that Russia and China have been spreading disinformation about the Coronavirus situation.
The Russian Minister, of course, made it a point to slam the European Union for accusing both Russia and China of spreading disinformation.
China and Russia have found new avenues of common interest amidst the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic and lockdowns around the world that further encourage the newfound camaraderie.
Lay-offs from major tech firms in the West, especially the defence manufacturing firms, for example, have increased the appetite of Russian and Chinese operatives for corporate secrets creating a new area for possible cooperation between the Russian and Chinese spies.
Beijing has been able to secure Kremlin’s support at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where the United States and other powers have been eager to take swipes at the Dragon.
However, Moscow has been blocking moves to initiate UNSC discussions on the COVID-19 outbreak, apart from expressly declaring that it cannot support a United States investigation into the source of the virus, which strongly vindicates the Chinese propaganda that the source of the virus is unknown.
Beijing has also cozied up to Moscow, praising it for taking an “objective” stance on the novel COVID-19 origin. Beijing has also been toning down its narrative about the treatment of Chinese citizens in China, muting the initial propaganda about the unfair treatment of Chinese citizens in Russia. Now, Beijing has dismissed concerns of mistreatment of Chinese citizens in Russia, amidst the ongoing Pandemic as false speculations.
WHY THIS DISPLAY OF CAMARADERIE
Putin and Jinping are acting as Communist comrades, but this is more tactical and circumstantial rather than an all-weather camaraderie. A sanctions-ridden Moscow has no option but to keep Beijing by its side, and the mighty Dragon whose trade relations with the free world are bound to go downhill in a post-Coronavirus world is happy to reciprocate.
The Coronavirus Pandemic has brought with it unprecedentedly low oil prices, which is hurting the sanctions-hit Russian economy badly and now Moscow supports its largest trading partner, China.
The strong economic ties with Beijing are not lost on Putin and he is pinning his hopes on Beijing reviving its struggling economy, and as such Kremlin doesn’t have an option but to keep China on its side.
China, on the other hand, has no idea what might confront it after we are over the Pandemic given the kind of outrage that it is facing around the world and therefore it wants to keep Russia and Eurasia firmly in its grip. This is the only part of the world where the Chinese trade has shown an upward trend in the last quarter.
Powerful, nuclear neighbour China:
Russia shares a long border with China, and while the border disputes were solved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is never a good idea to antagonise ties with a powerful, nuclear-powered neighbour who doesn’t believe in playing by the rules. No one has an accurate measure of China’s firepower, its nuclear arsenal, and the next-gen AI-powered warfare.
This must-have figured deeply in Russia’s calculations while drawing up its China strategy in the specific context of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Both China and Russia are Red authoritarians, and while Moscow is not as dictatorial a regime as Beijing, it is at least highly tilted towards totalitarianism and would never fancy a truly flourishing democracy. Together, they validate and vindicate each other strongly as against the free, Western world.
Both countries look at each other as useful options for thwarting and counterbalancing the West influence. Post the Ukraine crisis, Moscow looks favourably towards China, and the latter which modelled itself as the “world’s factory” having extensive trade links with the free world benefitted from Russia’s more direct criticism of Western policies abroad, as Beijing had to take minimal blame upon itself.
FRIENDS FOREVER? NOT REALLY.
Sanctions on Moscow and outrage against China have laid down the framework for Sino-Russian cooperation that has led to show a strong show of camaraderie but the bilateral ties are replete with irritants that can take the centre stage at any given point of time.
Between Putin and Xi Jinping themselves, a personality clash has been visible time and again. In 2014, for example, Russian President had reportedly hit on China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, slipping a shawl on her shoulders.
The Chinese censors had gone wild wiping Putin’s move on China’s first lady, and the State-run media had blacked out this little moment between China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan and the Russian President Valdimir Putin.
Competition for influence in Central Asia:
Russia has traditionally been a dominant player in Central Asia, but now Moscow is declining and Beijing is replacing the space it enjoyed. The Dragon’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s appetite for energy resources in the region, have contributed to its rise and there is little that Moscow can do about it.
China’s trade volume at over US $ 30 billion in Central Asia has far surpassed Russia’s trading relations with this part of the world, something that creates a strong sense of competition, and not camaraderie or co-operation.
Chinese influence in the Russian Far East:
This is where misunderstanding and territorial tensions continue to exist between the two Red powers. This sparsely populated Russian territory boasts of abundant natural resources, and traditionally looks at it as vulnerable to Chinese influence or even colonialization.
Today, China is eager to invest here out of its hunger for natural resources, but Russia wants to counter this dependence on China that was also writing on the wall with India’s US $ 1 billion line of credit to Russia for development of the Far East region.
Clashing interests in the Arctic:
Global warming is opening up the Arctic to greater human activity, and the Dragon wants to exploit it for securing new transport links to support its gigantic exports-based economy. But this directly impinges upon Moscow’s claims of its “privileged sphere of interest” in the Arctic, and its territorial claims to a larger portion of the Arctic Ocean through the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.
Today, therefore China and Russia might be behaving like comrades but there are simmering clashes of interest beneath the surface of this show of friendship. China may be Red, but not as Red as Russia and both of them actually operate in the same sphere of influence.
A rising China coincided with Russia’s long-term decline and as such Moscow is not in awe of Beijing’s gigantic stature. Moreover, cultural issues do come to the fore time and again, and the issues of anti-Chinese racism in Russia had almost led to a confrontation though Beijing deliberately muted its criticism of Kremlin.